It is a difficult thing to find Chinese fiction translated into English. A great deal of the classics (Zhuangzi, Confucius, Laozi), the ‘four novels of the Chinese canon’, and a fair amount of poetry have all made their way in translation, but modern and post-modern (and I assume now meta-modern) novels are few and far between. It is thus perhaps something of a significant moment that The Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha) has made its way across the lingual divide in an official translation from St. Martin’s Press, the first volume of which is A Hero Born.
A Hero Born doesn’t stop from the word go. Telling the story of the sworn brothers Yang Tiexin and Guo Xiaotian, it is set against a backdrop of the Song-Jin dynasties (in what is roughly China today) and the rise of the Mongolian tribes to the north. In action-packed style, it tells the story of farmers Yang and Guo whose lives, caught at an unfortunate crossroads, take a fateful turn when a renegade Taoist monk who has recently killed a corrupt government official finds his way to their village. The army tracking him there, the fight turns ugly, and spins the lives of Yang and Guo’s families in different directions. A Hero Born is the story of those lives—or at least Act I.
Exotic in the context of modern Western fantasy series, A Hero Born is a breath of fresh air—or Ginseng Wind Caresses the Soul if the novel would have its way. Where most multi-volume fantasies in English these days readily and willingly bog themselves down in the boring minutiae of ‘worldbuilding’, Jin readily eschews spurious detail to focus on plot, action, and to some degree, character. Major events, fighting, and story transitions core to the novel, the scenes move very quickly as action shifts the narrative space perpetually forward, rarely if ever pausing to detail court attire, expound on the qualities of a lady’s hair brush, or navel gaze into the flow of wind through the heather. It is the day to Robert Jordan’s night.
And the transitions are anything but predictable. Jin Yong’s mind a wonderfully imaginative place, the scenes play out beyond what is often a black & white, good vs evil setup. Kung fu the mode rigeur, fanciful styles and moves, incredible leaps and feats of strength splash colorfully across the page, even as the imaginary hierarchy of kung fu masters that reveals itself is tested in combat. Nothing says martial arts like a duel between Master Eternal Spring and his Lightning Ignites the Sky thrust versus the mercenary Three-Horned Dragon and his parry, Nine Ying Skeleton Claw. One can almost see the hidden wires of Hong Kong’s action movie scene bouncing the characters and their outlandish stylings across the book’s screen. These scenes, often resolved in unexpected ways though standard in set up, flow into and feed the overarching narrative arc in highly entertaining ways.
If there is any downside to the book, it’s that its end is a pause—not a cliffhanger, not a natural break in the action, a pause. The reality seems that instead of publishing one massive volume, St. Martin’s Press chose to break the book into four volumes. When considering two things 1) Yong’s style, i.e. his perpetual avalanche of story that leaves no room for cliffhangers or natural breaks, and 2) the Chinese language fits in significantly tighter spaces than does the English, means what is probably a good sized volume in Chinese doesn’t naturally fit into a single volume in English, and publishers likely chose to pause at a proportional place rather than plot break. So be it.
In the end, A Hero Born feels like a kung fu re-visioning of Outlaw of the Marsh (aka The Water Margin) with a bit of the wild stylings of the Monkey King’s Journey to the West to ginseng matters up. The emphasis is on martial prowess, but behind it are a strong set of morals focusing on the value of virtue, honesty, family, allegiance, perseverance, and a dash of Chinese filial piety thrown in for good measure. In content, the book is wholly non-Western—a refreshing thing. Fantasies featuring princesses, knights, and dragons a worn, muddy road in the West, having things mixed up with the exotic nature of kung fu, Chinese history, and Oriental custom, not to mention a pace that excludes the minutiae of worldbuilding, is a Nine Dragons of the East blast of clean air.